Salvation by works is not always what it seems. Some believe it is a legalistic works righteousness where people try to earn their salvation. They say we commit this sin when we focus on things like the plan of salvation, worship, church attendance, and doctrinal correctness. I have heard this described as checklist Christianity. The idea is that people who emphasize obedience to God and correct faith are trying to earn salvation by checking off each command as if one had earned something. However, to accuse people of this simply because they are trying to obey God is to call evil good and good evil (Isaiah 5:20). Are we to seek salvation by trying not to obey God’s commands?
Those who accuse others of believing in salvation by works tend to practice it themselves. The charge of checklist Christianity also condemns the innocent and misrepresents biblical teaching about grace, faith, and works. As Jesus told some Pharisees on one occasion: “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent” (Matthew 12:7, NIV).
Why has this wrong-headed approach to Scripture come about in the church today? One reason is because many do not know why people are lost or saved. People are not lost because they sin but because they do not obey the gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:8). Likewise, people are not saved because they do good things but because they receive God’s gift of salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Many Jews in the first century were good and righteous people. For example, the Bible describes the parents of John the Baptist as “upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly” (Luke 1:6). Zechariah and Elizabeth may have never lived to hear Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, but they were saved at the time on the basis of their relationship with God under the law. A time would soon come, however, when all good Jews must repent and be baptized in order to be saved. For example, a good Jew named Nicodemus was told by Jesus that he must be born again if he were ever to enter the kingdom of God. “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5).
Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus was fulfilled in Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). At the end of Peter’s sermon, everyone was told, “Repent and be baptized” (v. 38). The message of the gospel is the work of the Holy Spirit in our salvation. “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). Submission to God in baptism is the final act in our acceptance of God’s gracious gift of salvation. The Bible says, “Those who accepted his message were baptized…” (Acts 2:41).
The idea that good people like Nicodemus were lost if they did not obey the gospel was offensive to many in the first century. What was offensive then is also offensive today. It is natural to want all good people to be saved—especially if they are religious. This is something that God also desires. The Bible says that God does not want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Desiring that people be saved, however, does not make it so because everyone must come to repentance.
Apostolic preaching about God’s plan of salvation was rejected by many religious Jews because they did not believe they were lost. Apparently, some in the church were also reluctant to believe these people were lost since Paul talks about this in his letters. For example, his message to the church in Rome is that the gospel is the power of God for salvation for everyone, including Jews. Paul says “it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 1:16). So, if righteousness now comes apart from the Law of Moses, then there is no difference in the lost state of both Jews and Gentiles. As Paul says, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:22-23). God’s plan now is that “all Israel” must submit to repentance and baptism in order to be saved (Acts 2:36, 38). To believe that religious Jews could be saved without repentance and baptism is to believe that salvation is by works and not by grace.
The view that salvation is by works also exists today but is seldom recognized. I once heard a preacher explain to his audience that he believes a famous Christian author is saved because his books were so helpful to people. Never mind that the famous author had never been baptized or done other things stated in God’s word, the preacher believed him to be worthy of salvation based on all the good things he has done. It may seem generous and kind to include people in the kingdom who have not obeyed the gospel but we have no right to do this. In fact, we are guilty of judging when we judge people into heaven without regard for what God says, and it is just as wrong to judge people into heaven as it is to judge people into hell. Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1).
I have often heard people say that only a transformed life is what matters to God. Certainly a transformed life is important. Paul says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). A transformed life, however, is not the basis of salvation and it does not permit people to ignore other things God wants them to do. To think so is to believe that salvation is by works. No one will explicitly say this, but this is the implication of their doctrine. In practice, they are like those in Paul’s day who rejected God’s revealed righteousness by establishing their own (Romans 10:3).
I once had a brother criticize my preaching because he said I talked too much about doctrine and not enough about ministry. Although I encourage people to get involved in ministry, I also preach about God’s plan of salvation, worship, the church, and the incarnation of Christ. For me to emphasize ministry and then neglect these important subjects is to believe that salvation is by works.
A speaker at a Christian university told his audience that “God will not ask of us doctrinal questions, such as Jesus’ virgin birth, but he will ask, ‘When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was in prison, did you visit me?’” So, what is the speaker saying? Is he saying that our beliefs about the virgin birth are not as important as our beliefs about ministry? Or, is he saying that God will allow us to reject the doctrine of the virgin birth as long as we do ministry? The Bible says that Mary was “found to be with child through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18) and “The virgin will be with child” (v. 23). The doctrine of the virgin birth is fundamental to faith in the incarnation of Christ. To doubt or deny that Jesus was born of a virgin is to doubt or deny what God says, and to believe that ministry trumps this important doctrine is to believe in salvation by works.
Another important aspect of the incarnation is that Jesus came in the flesh. There were some Christians in the early church who believed Jesus did not come in the flesh, but John calls them false prophets, deceivers, and the antichrist (1 John 4:1-3; 2 John 7). These people called themselves Christians and believed other things about Jesus. They probably did many wonderful works in his name, but just because they call him lord does not mean they are saved. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
Salvation by grace does not mean that people can neglect or ignore God’s commands. The belief that ministry or personal goodness is a better indicator of salvation than what God actually says is to believe we are saved by works and not by grace. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
J B Myers